Project Engineering in a Plant Environment

September 1982

The Ampex Corporation

James K. McCollum

Auburn University

William N. Ledbetter

Auburn University


Project engineering is a fascinating field of managerial study. When practiced in a manufacturing environment, however, the field needs more definition than is currently found in management texts. With new organizational forms evolving which modify the traditional concepts of authority structure, research into the field of project engineering may provide guidance for designing and implementing these organizational forms [1] [4], Project engineering is particularly interesting due to its hybrid nature: a combination of engineering and management within both hierarchical and matrix organizational structures.

Project engineering, as discussed here, will specifically involve plant facilities engineering. Among characteristics common to generic project engineering are: project design, materials specification and acquisition, project planning, scheduling and controlling project implementation, and transfer to user. These functions involve technical work but also require considerable organizational skill and understanding.

Modern industry has become extremely complex and as technology has increased in our society it has provided a more complex industrial environment. Manufacturing processes have grown increasingly complicated, requiring more technical equipment. Additionally, industry size has increased, requiring more specialized functions in management. Gone are the days when management could maintain its manufacturing responsibilities and control plant facilities engineering through one or two assistants. In the past, facilities engineering in most manufacturing plants was less important than it is today. Many companies, as they grew, began to incur problems due to insufficient emphasis on facilities engineering. In some instances haphazard planning and poorly designed facilities began to affect safety, production, and returns on investment. As some managers increasingly emphasized more professionally designed industry, others recognized the benefits of the improved designs and began to follow suit.

One result of this shift in emphasis was the increase in number and size of plant engineering departments. But as the influence of these groups spread, conflicts arose over project authority and priorities, allocation of resources, and coordination of project personnel [5] [6] [10].

Plant facilities engineering differs from other branches of project engineering. Plant facilities engineering is concerned with the problems of equipment installation and facilities design — basic functions in all industries. Thus, many companies that have few other engineering functions find themselves trying to integrate plant engineering departments into their operations. This application creates special concerns and problems for the plant project engineer, but it has made plant engineering one of the most pervasive branches in industry. Also, owing to the broad scope of the work, the plant engineer has had to become knowledgeable of plant activities beyond his specialized area. With the proliferation of technology in the typical plant this trend will be accelerated. [6]

In companies where the manufacturing process is very technical we often find project engineers who focus on upgrading production techniques or introducing automation to assembly lines. These individuals are concerned with projects that directly affect the process of production. Such projects may take the form of the design, purchase, and installation of modifications to production machinery or chemical processes. They could also involve the design and implementation of assembly lines. Thus, while project engineering that deals with manufacturing processes is significantly different from plant facilities engineering, much of the managerial process is the same.

This article, however, is written from the perspective of the authors’ experiences in both participant observation and field studies in plant facilities engineering. In the participant observation role, the experience is measured in years with such organizations as a major clothing manufacturing company, a magnetic tape manufacturing company, an engineering firm, and two federal agencies.

This article briefly describes the functions and problems of project engineering in manufacturing facilities from a management perspective in light of modern organization theory. From this vantage point we will consider the theoretical aspects of organization structure, authority/responsibility, communication, and goals and effectiveness measures as they affect the plant project engineer.

Organizational Considerations

Plant engineering departments often evolve within the following scenario. One man, known for years as the “plant engineer,” has been with the company longer than anyone else and is responsible to a great degree for its present state of engineering. For most of his career the plant engineer has attended to technical problems and has grown accustomed to doing things his way. Owing to his extensive knowledge of the plant and its operations, he seems irreplaceable. Nevertheless, plant expansion and technological changes have created jobs that he cannot accomplish alone. Thus, he is required by management to take on subordinates. He then performs the role of plant engineering manager. [8].

Under the plant engineering manager, engineers and technicians are grouped according to their specialties. In larger manufacturing plants, electrical, structural, mechanical, HVAC (heating, venting, and air conditioning), energy management, instrumentation, and pneumatic groups are found in the plant engineering department. The plant construction foreman, maintenance foreman, and head draftsman may also report to the plant engineering manager. In any manufacturing plant these individuals must work closely with the plant engineering staff.

Despite the functional departmentalization of the engineering department, most of its tasks are project-oriented. Each project is assigned to the member of the group whose experience and training most nearly matches the job requirements. For example, a new boiler installation would be assigned to someone with a mechanical engineering specialty in steam thermodynamics. It would be that person’s task to determine system requirements and capacity, design the proper interface network, draw up technical specifications, approve the purchase, and perform other activities pertaining to that field of specialization. However, the responsibilities only begin here. There are electrical, structural, pneumatic, electronic, and other aspects of boiler installation that must be designed into the system. Though the project engineer may enlist the help of the other specialists, responsibility for this boiler project remains with the project engineer.

Projects vary greatly and their completion may entail a great number of inputs. Project engineers (whatever their specialty) are responsible for combining all inputs at the right time to accomplish required objectives.

Role and Scope

Project conception is normally formulated by someone besides the project engineer. Someone in industrial engineering, manufacturing, or executive management puts a general idea in writing as a project proposal. All proposals must go through proper channels for approval; if projects will involve considerable time or money, they must be cleared by executive management. If the project is approved, it is forwarded to the plant engineering manager, who then assigns it to the appropriate (or available) engineer.

At this point, the complicated task of the project engineer begins. The first requirement is that of clarifying and getting more details on the project. This process sounds easy, but in reality it is often the most difficult part. If one could get a complete, unchanging description of the desired project, he or she could proceed accordingly. This desired condition rarely exists. The project engineer must perform a function of information gathering which often borders on mind reading. Once the nature of the project is clear, the project engineer must insure that any potentially objectionable aspects of the project are understood by the affected parties. Once this is done and objections are eliminated or minimized, the design of the project may begin.

The design procedure requires the project engineer’s imagination, experience, and technical training. A scheme to accomplish the project’s objectives which will fall within the specified constraints must be conceived. Other factors impinging on the design include limited money, downtime, physical space, managerial preference, and possibly other constraints. In addition, project engineers must progressively update the concerned parties as design details arise which were not previously identified and discussed. These concerned parties may include other contributing engineers, manufacturing management, executive management, or the plant engineering manager. The possibilities for delays at this point are considerable. The project engineer is also responsible for generating and documenting the necessary blueprints and design specifications.

Closely related to design is the specification of the equipment or material needed to implement the design. The designer must choose from many different suppliers and product lines in selecting the items that most closely match his design.

Material specification, however, cannot be performed without an eye toward acquisition. The most exact match to the project engineers’ specification may be a custom-made widget from the Back Order Widget Company in some remote location which can only promise delivery in six months. When management wants the project finished in two months, this obviously would not be the best supplier.

Material acquisition is one of the project engineer’s most important jobs. When the contractors arrive, the job site is prepared, and all the support groups are assembled, the specified items needed to perform the work must be there.

Unfortunately, however, the project engineer normally will not have a free hand in the acquisition of materials. Most companies have tight controls and procedures for purchasing goods. Accounting, purchasing, receiving, and storage departments as well as others are in direct control of contracts and the purchase and receipt of materials. Managers of these departments will not be acquainted with the technical details involved, but will be concerned with comparative shopping and controlling company money flow. Supposedly, the project engineer’s job is simply to complete the requisitions and let the other departments do the rest. It rarely works this way. The project engineer, to insure the project’s success, must take personal responsibility in seeing that these requisitions clear all the red tape and authorization process rapidly and without significant change. This process may involve “walking it through”; that is, the project engineer takes the requisition from desk to desk, getting the needed signatures and answering any questions. Then the requisition is left with the purchasing officer who will send out the order. The project engineer has no authority over this process but will be held responsible if the necessary supplies are late or incorrect.

Once the order is received the project engineer is responsible for assuring proper handling and storage. In a large plant, items are easily lost or stolen. Also, items may have arrived at the plant without the engineer being aware of it. He or she must closely monitor receiving and handling material and equipment to insure that no time is lost during installation.

The installation phase of a plant engineer’s project may range from setting up an air compressor to constructing a new plant addition. At this point the project engineer’s management skills are most severely taxed.

After the design of a project is completed, along with the materials-requisitions, the project engineer must draft the installation contracts. These will be sent through the appropriate channels for approval and released for bids. Once bids are accepted, the contracts become the documents binding the contractor and the engineer’s company.

As the installation date approaches, the project engineer continually monitors and coordinates preparations by the various groups involved. He or she must have or quickly obtain answers to any questions that arise. The project engineer acts as the hub of a wheel, constantly attending to every detail, regardless or whose functional area it might be in.

Once the installation phase begins, the depth of the engineer’s planning (or lack of it) becomes apparent. The project engineer closely coordinates the installation process, directing many of the activities that take place. For example, a new computerized phone system was installed at a major clothing manufacturer’s plant. The project entailed service for six thousand people and about five miles of cable. During this job the project engineer was coordinating the work of an independent phone contractor, South Central Bell, surveyors, carpenters, electricians, a cable contractor, receiving, accounting, suppliers, utility representatives, plant managers, and others.

During installation, the project engineer is responsible for the safety of the project. He or she must foresee any potential dangers and insure that all standard safety measures are taken. In addition, it is the project engineer’s job to see that the installation is of high quality. Thus he or she must be knowledgeable of proper installation methods and constantly inspect the work being performed.

After the actual installation, the project engineer’s responsibilities continue. There is still work to be done with documentation of the project. If the final construction of a project differs from the design, the project engineer must update the design drawings and specifications to reflect the project’s “as built” status. He or she must also update and close any financial records left open. If the installation was significantly different from the design, contracts may have to be revised accordingly and cost adjustments made.

Finally, there is the task of turning the project over to the parties who will use and maintain it. This involves orienting them to its nature and functions as well as providing the proper reference material. During a break-in period the project engineer must be available to handle any problems that arise.

Authority Relationships

From the preceding discussion of plant project engineering it can be seen that many non-line authority relationships are created. Within the plant engineering department itself there is usually a scalar chain of authority. The plant engineering manager retains overall authority regardless of what projects the subordinate engineers are assigned to. But while subordinate engineers are responsible for various aspects of projects, they have little or no formal authority to accomplish them. The operatives with whom the project engineer must work all remain under the authority of their functional managers [3] [5].

A frequent problem characteristic of such a situation involves coordination with the plant’s construction group. Many times the project engineer is under great pressure to get certain jobs done and completing the work requires action by the construction group. Their response to the project engineer often is, “We will put you on our list — maybe next week.”

Problems also arise between the project engineer and the manufacturing managers. In manufacturing, the middle managers have often devoted much of their lives working up to their present positions and are very possessive of their territorial authority. When a project engineer, who has been with the company only a few years and probably makes more money than many of the members of the manufacturing management group, presents orders to rearrange the production facilities, conflict is inevitable. Conflict arises when the project engineer attempts to coordinate with manufacturing managers for such matters as downtime, advice concerning the manufacturing process, rearrangement of facilities, and operation of the system after modification. In these situations the project engineer has no authority over the line manager and must rely on persuasive abilities and other job relations skills [7].

Though the project engineer’s formal authority is limited, their responsibilities are very broad. Within the four major functions of design, material specification/acquisition, installation, and follow-up, they become responsible for a broad spectrum of details. How, then, can the project engineer accomplish required tasks without formal authority?

Bases of Project Authority

While project engineers have no direct formal authority over matters for which they are responsible, they have other sources of authority which must be exercised skillfully. These may be grouped in various ways, but for convenience we will list them as (1) Executive will, (2) Professional competence and status, (3) Company representation, (4) Managerial backing, and (5) Executive appeal [3] [9].

“Executive will” status means simply that people high up in the company have made it known that they want a certain project implemented. When manufacturing or craft personnel are aware of executive will they are much more willing to cooperate lest their names come before upper management as an obstacle to its will. Without this emphasis a project will often be put on the “back burner” and may never be implemented.

“Professional competence and status,” similar to French and Raven’s [2] base of authority called “Expert Power,” is operative when a person has a record of competence and successful projects. Coworkers accord that person a certain intrinsic authority [3], His or her experience provides a deep pool of knowledge from which to draw and this, too, is a source of personal authority.

In the “company representative” role, the project engineer is the company’s primary liaison with contractors and suppliers. He or she will be the one to evaluate performance and approve payment of contractors and suppliers. The project engineer may also recommend that unsatisfactory contractors or suppliers not be used again by the company. This role gives the engineer considerable leverage in his dealings with these outsiders.

“Managerial backing” is similar to executive will. Executive will concerns a specific project. Managerial backing concerns the project engineer as a professional. If the plant engineering manager consistently supports the judgments of the project engineers (within reason), coworkers will take them seriously. If project engineers can easily be overruled they will lose their credibility.

Above the project engineering manager there is usually an executive of considerable sway. This person should take a strong interest in the affairs of the plant engineering department and thus provide its engineers a channel for executive appeal. Such a channel will often be necessary to solve some of the more serious organizational conflicts.

Since the authority mechanisms available to the project engineer are unorthodox, they must be wielded with considerable finesse. Since the project engineer is continuously involved with information flow, he must be skilled in the use of organizational communication. A new project engineer will soon learn that many, if not most, projects fail to go as planned because other participants have misunderstood others or misstated themselves.


The engineer’s communication problems start with his assignment to the project. Assignments usually come in some type of written form with a verbal accompaniment by the plant engineering manager. They are often of the form “John, here is an AFE for a project in mix-prep. They want to upgrade their catalyst injection system. Check with Greg over there and see what they want.” The AFE (Authorized Funding Expenditure) form mentioned is used for executive approval of larger projects. It contains a brief, primarily functional, description of what is to be done. Greg and John will go into the plant for a visual evaluation and discuss possible methods to accomplish his request. Greg has certain equipment ordered, but John must engineer its installation. After a long discussion they agree that John will begin design on some aspects, but on others they will explore options and meet again.

This scenario is typical but often problematic. With verbal consultation much information is covered in a short time, but only a small proportion of the communication is likely to be remembered correctly. When problems arise, it will be John’s word against Greg’s—a real potential for conflict. Also, oral communications are usually less precisely thought out than written communications. Nevertheless, in the interest of flexibility and of not offending the person (“Give it to me in writing” might be construed as an insult), the oral method is often used.

From there, John will return to his boss, the plant engineering manager, with a brief summary of the extent of the work required. The boss will set the new project’s priority in relation to other assignments and assign responsibility for it. Usually the assignment goes to the engineer already into the project. The engineering manager might also suggest steps toward the job’s completion and point out potential problems. All this, too, is usually accomplished orally.

Throughout the ensuing process there are requisitions, drawings, memoranda, contracts, and specifications that aid in the design, materials acquisition, installation, and follow-up involved with the project. These documents, however, form only a skeletal system to support and, to a degree, formalize the oral communications required to accomplish the project’s multitude of details. For major projects such as new buildings, plant additions, or new assembly lines, this process will tend to be much more documented than smaller projects such as the installation of a new machine or the modification of a manufacturing process.


The project engineer has many goals associated with his project. These include a project that is to be completed as rapidly as possible, with a minimum of confusion, at a reasonable cost, and with design effectiveness. Additionally, the project engineer hopes to refrain from creating lasting enemies.

His or her effectiveness is judged by one or a combination of factors. Some of the effectiveness criteria such as costs and completion time have numerical measures. Others are mostly subjective and relative. If all objective criteria are met, yet the project manager is persona non grata in some departments, his or her effectiveness for future projects may be impaired.

It must be stressed that this overview is a result of experience as a project engineer. Thus, it cannot be taken as an exact representation of the processes and problems faced by all engineers in this field. All of them, however, would recognize at least parts of it as common to their experience.

Project engineers in manufacturing plants have status because of their expertise and ability to implement needed projects. They constantly slip in and out of matrix-like structures as projects are assigned in various parts of their facilities. The project engineer is responsible to the plant engineering manager for some of the duties assigned, to the project sponsor for other areas, and to the functional manager where the project is being implemented for others. In this environment of mixed authority, the effective project engineer must find ways to work smoothly with the pluralism of bosses and complete the assigned projects flawlessly and quickly. It would be easy in such an environment to accomplish little while blaming crossed directions and communications for the problems. Obviously, the successful project engineer becomes a diplomat and gives acceptable responses to each of his or her authority figures while keeping a singleness of purpose toward the most important goal—the accomplishment of the assigned project.


 [1] Duncan, R., “What is the Right Organization Structure: Decision Tree Analysis Provides the Answer,” Organizational Dynamics, Winter, 1979.

 [2] French, J.R.P. and B. Raven, “The Bases of Social Power,” in Studies in Social Power, ed. Cartwright, D., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 1959.

 [3] Gemill, G., and D. Wilemon, “The Power Spectrum in Project Management,” Sloan Management Review, Fall, 1970.

 [4] Goggin, W.C., “How the Multidimensional Structure Works at Dow Corning,” Harvard Business Review, Jan.-Feb., 1974.

 [5] Goodman, R.A., “Ambiguous Authority Definitions in Project Management,” Academy of Management Journal, December, 1967.

 [6] Katzel, J., “The Plant Engineering Challenge,” Plant Engineering, February, 1982.

 [7] Kerzner, H., Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1979.

 [8] Koplow, R.A., “From Engineer to Manager—And Back Again,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management EM-14, 1967.

 [9] Martin, C.C., Project Management: How to Make it Work, AMACOM, 1976.

[10] Wilemon, D.L. and J.P. Cicero, “The Project Manager: Anomalies and Ambiguities,” Academy of Management Journal, September, 1970.



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